Why It’s Important for Parents to Show Their True Feelings

Why It's Good for Parents to Show Their True Feelings

One of the most important qualities of healthy relationships is authenticity – being who we are, frayed edges and all. Being authentic in a relationship creates connection, openness, trust and acceptance. Provided the relationship is based in genuine intent, authenticity means that there is no need for anyone to filter out the parts of themselves that might not make it into the top 100 ‘most adorable things about me’. 

Of course there will always be times to put the woolly parts of ourselves away, but what does this look like when it comes to being parents? How much of our emotional selves should we put away to be good for our children and how much should we show?

There isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t get sad, cranky, furious, scared from time to time. Sometimes these feelings find a decent grip and they stay for a while. In the midst of the heaviness, our kids will be watching everything we do. They might not know the details but they’re smart, and would likely get a sense when the outside of us doesn’t match what’s happening on the inside.

It’s completely understandable that we would want to protect our kids from the grown-up details of the messiness of life. There are some things that their child status protects them from. But there is a balance that needs to be struck.

New research has found that always putting on a happy face might not be the best for us or for our kids. The study found that parents who ‘try to be perfect’ for their children risk lower authenticity, poorer relationships with their children and reduced responsiveness to their children.

 Part of the reason for this is that depressing negative feelings and exaggerating positive ones tends to lead parents to feel worse about themselves.

 Parents experienced costs when regulating their emotions in these ways because they felt less authentic, or true to themselves … It is important to note that amplifying positive emotions was relatively more costly to engage in, indicating that controlling emotions in ways that may seem beneficial in the context of caring for children can come at a cost.– Dr. Bonnie Le (lead author), University of Toronto.

One of our very important roles as parents is to nurture our children’s awareness around difficult emotions. What do big feelings look like? How do they feel? What do they mean? How do I deal with them? What about when those messy feelings belong to someone I love? There are plenty of lessons to learn, so it’s a good thing that we have plenty of time to teach them. And that we will be given plenty of opportunities. 

The primary concern of children will always be ‘what about me’. The key then, is to let them see when we feel wobbly, but to let them know that we’ll be okay and so will they. Difficult emotions become threatening when they come with a bagload of unknowns, the biggest one being, ‘What does this mean for me.’ All feelings are important – the bad ones too. They are also unavoidable and part of living a healthy, happy, fulfilled life means knowing how to handle them.

When our children see us being okay with our own messy feelings, it gives them permission to do the same. They won’t have the skills to manage them for a while, and that’s okay. What’s important is that they see that everyone feels bad sometimes and that they have opportunities to learn from how we deal with them.

It is important to measure the intensity of our emotional honesty according to what our children can cope with. Nobody is suggesting that we expose our children to every square inch of our raw and fragile feelings, but the alternative to baring our emotional all doesn’t have to be hiding it. There is middle ground and it’s about the intensity of what we show and the reassurances we give with it. Letting them see that we feel difficult feelings too sometimes, and that we’re okay with that, will help them to expand their their emotional intelligence in terms of their own feelings, other people’s feelings, and how to manage them in a way that lets them thrive.

9 Comments

Katie

Isn’t it funny how the universe sometimes sends us the things we need at appropriate times… I am currently working through some deep-seated issues from my own childhood that relate back to some bizarre ways of dealing with emotions. I think it is so important that we keep the dialogue going on healthy parenting choices so that the next generation doesn’t struggle as significantly with anxiety and depression.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes absolutely! I’m so pleased this article found you when you needed it. It’s such an important conversation to keep having isn’t it.

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marina

Wonderful article. This put words on things I have been sensing without being able to articulate them. I am glad I have been following this instinct, and I will continue to do so. Authenticity has been a leading principle in my life, and the key to any healthy and meaningful relationship, in my opinion. There are areas of my life where I still “put on a smile” systematically and refuse to break down the walls, though, and I guess that’s okay, as long as you don’t keep doing that with people you love. you can’t open up with everyone and at all times, and that’s why true friendships are rare and precious to me.

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Hey Sigmund

Marina you’re so right. Keep following your instincts and letting authenticity be an important part of your relationships. There will be people who don’t see all of you and then the people who do. Let the ones who love you see you fully for who you are. That authenticity will be one of the things that makes you a completely wonderful friend to be with.

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skeeter

This a great and timely article. We have been discussing authenticity a great deal in our family. The greatest gift we can give to ourselves and our children is to discover as a family who we are and not who people want us to be.

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Bridgit

I was just talk with a fellow teacher about how doing this with students seems to get me lots of “credit” (for lack of a better term) with them.

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Natalie

I couldn’t agree more, I came from a family who never discussed feelings and emotions and my father struggled with depression during our childhood and it was something that was never talked about openly. I felt very anxious because intuitively I knew he was suffering. I always felt that we should have helped him through it but it was only until years later that I could fully comprehend what he must of gone through. I think there are a lot of families out there trying to refrain from placing emotional baggage on to their children but this in effect can lead to feeling very disconnected as a family unit. Such a well written peice.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Natalie for sharing this. I imagine it must have been difficult for all of you – for your dad to feel as though he had to keep things to himself and for you because you knew that something wasn’t right but you didn’t know what. This can be a frightening thing for anyone, and certainly for a child or adolescent in relation to a parent. Thankfully we are finding out more and more about how important it is to acknowledge feelings in healthy ways.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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